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Building a sports success, one jersey at a time

It's taken more than two decades, but Dan Verven finally has it all.

The 54-year-old owns Pro Jersey Sports, a shop in Downers Grove, Illinois, which specializes in — you guessed it — professional sports jerseys.

Chicago-based teams, including the Bulls, Bears and Cubs, are all well-represented, but Windy City residents who hail from elsewhere can still find their home team's gear here. That's how Pro Jersey Sports made its mark back in the days before the internet.

"At the time, there was really nobody local that was carrying other teams," said Verven. "You basically had to have a friend in New York if you needed a Yankees T-shirt. No store in Chicago would have it."

Nowadays, Verven does well enough to sock away cash in his retirement plan, fund 529 college savings plans for his two daughters, ages 11 and 12, and ensure that his family can go away on vacation once in a while.

But the shop has come a long way from its humble start in 1991. Here's how he did it.

A family loan

As a child, Verven loved checking out sports merchandise in stores, so it only seemed natural that he jump into the business straight out of college.

After managing a sports merchandise shop for two years, he decided to open his own, Sports Fan, in 1991 at age 28.

"I try to explain to them that it's all to make their lives a little better as they get older." -Dan Verven

Verven didn't go it alone. He took a small loan totaling about $6,000 from his father and brothers to get the store open. He paid the family back within the year.

The store's interior.
Source: CNBC
The store's interior.

All of the money Verven made went back into growing inventory and expanding the business. The young entrepreneur wound up living at home until he was 32.

"There was no savings at the beginning, on a personal level," Verven said. "I was looking at it like, 'the business is going to be my savings account or my retirement account.'"

Verven ran Sports Fan for 11 years before selling it in 2002. That was when he opened Pro Jersey Sports.

Finding stability

Inventory has been a major investment for the shop. It's also the biggest risk.

Dan Verven adjusts inventory.
Source: CNBC
Dan Verven adjusts inventory.

"The players are constantly changing and we have to order the products so far in advance and we have to forecast who is going to do well," Verven said.

He opened a 401(k) when the shop generated enough profit that he could reinvest in inventory and still have cash left over for saving.

Even a successful business goes through a dark period.

"I had to dip into my personal savings in order to keep the business afloat." -Dan Verven

About five years ago, when he moved Pro Jersey Sports to a larger location, Verven lost one of his long-term managers to another opportunity.

Soon, the entrepreneur found himself squeezed between running the store, keeping up with vendors and ensuring the bills were paid.

"I had to dip into my personal savings in order to keep the business afloat," Verven said.

Things were tough enough that he drew up a Plan B: His wife would go back to work, and he'd sell the business and either work for a competitor or for a manufacturer.

Source: CNBC

Verven was able to right the ship after hiring a new manager, and he repaid the loan he had made to himself.

Once Pro Jersey Sports found its footing and began to improve, Verven met with his financial advisor to ensure he was maxing out his 401(k) and that he could contribute to his full-time workers' savings.

The rewards

The hustle continues for Verven, even with the shop on a strong footing. The next big plan on the horizon is to continue socking money away in a 529 for his daughters and retire from the business in the next eight to 10 years.

"My oldest daughter complains that I'm never home, but that comes with the territory," said Verven.

"I try to explain to them that it's all to make their lives a little better as they get older," he said, "so they don't have to work the crazy hours I do."

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